The idea that the NFL preseason is completely void of action is not exactly accurate. Sure, there will be games played in which familiar players are sitting on the bench and wearing a baseball cap before the end of the first quarter. But for every snoozer of a fourth quarter, there is extensive action in personnel offices across the league.
That activity is happening at an accelerated pace this summer, because of the lockout that shortened the league's summer schedule. Teams are frantically signing, cutting and trading players, trying to assemble the best rosters possible in a short period of time.
Those affected the most by the lockout were the rookies. Draft picks have abbreviated time in which to learn their playbook, while dozens of undrafted free agents are doing everything within their power to show the teams that signed them that they deserve to join that class of rare diamonds in the rough who go from unwanted during the draft to earning a spot on an NFL roster.
Most teams have a few players on their rosters who they signed without having spent draft picks to acquire them, and the Dallas Cowboys are among the teams that have enjoyed considerable success dipping into the undrafted free agent pool. Two players left town as free agents this summer after starting their careers as undrafted free agents: wide receiver San Hurd (who moved on this summer to the Chicago Bears) signed with Dallas out of Northern Illinois in 2006; defensive end Stephen Bowen (now a Washington Redskin) signed out of Hofstra the same year.
Dallas has picked up other contributors as undrafted free agents in recent years, including former backup offensive lineman Travis Bright, safeties Barry Church and Danny McCray, fullback Chris Gronkowski, backup offensive lineman Phil Costa and cornerback/return specialist Bryan McCann, who the team actually had to sign twice — he inked a deal with the team after playing collegiately at SMU, got snatched up by the Baltimore Ravens when the Cowboys tried to slip him through waivers in an effort to stash him on the practice squad, and then re-signed with the team after the Ravens released him.
An assortment of undrafted free agents is in San Antonio with the Cowboys now, hoping to catch the attention of the coaches. These players know the odds of making the team are long, but they wouldn't be in their current positions if they aren't competitive, and if they need any reminders about what can happen if they have the talent and the work ethic and athletic ability … and are lucky enough to land with the right team, they need not look outside their own locker room.
Wide receiver Miles Austin is by far the Cowboys' most successful undrafted free agent. When he joined Hurd and Bowen in signing with the Cowboys in 2006, there probably weren't many people in Texas who had even heard of his alma mater, Monmouth University, and even fewer who had heard of him. For two years, he was little more than a kick returner. In 2008, he started to get some time on offense, and in 2009, everything fell into place. Austin led the Cowboys with 81 receptions, 1,320 yards and 11 receiving touchdowns, and in September 2010, he signed a seven-year contract worth just over $57 million.
Austin isn't the most productive undrafted free agent in league history — that title undoubtedly belongs to former St. Louis and Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, who went from undrafted free agent to a two-time league Most Valuable Player and three-time Super Bowl quarterback who threw for more than 32,344 yards and 208 touchdowns in a career that might well end up with his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But Austin is a guy most assumed wouldn't make it out of training camp give years ago, and now he is one of the NFL's elite receivers. So the question becomes, will there be another Austin in this year's class?
Austin An Inspiration To UFAs
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